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The DVD of the Tarkovsky version (1979)

. "Solaris"

Steven Soderbergh is a director who is using his success and current power at the boxoffice to explore new regions -- regions of film genres as well as, in this instance, regions of space, as in science fiction. "Solaris" itself is the name of a planet, a distant, mysterious one -- one to which earthling scientists have sent ships for study and understanding.

In this genre, concept is the key. It provides the ground rules for what is real in future times when current understandings no longer apply, when discovery and invention are there for the imagination to ponder. And, while "Solaris" comes with just such a concept, the justification for Soderbergh's modernized version of it is has much to do with superb casting.

Not to say that the effects, the visual design, the sets and other production values aren't first rate. It's just that Soderbergh has taken Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel and concentrated on the human relationship that is its heart, its core, a place for emotional testing, experimentation and revelation.

Earthbound psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), suffering the loss of his wife to an unimaginable suicide, is as deeply troubled as his most stressed patient when he's contacted by the scientists who have been manning a space ship hung off the mysterious Solaris. In calling him as the most suitable specialist to solve the strange and undisclosed phenomena ocurring on the ship, the contact implies happenings that threaten the mission and all aboard.

Kelvin makes the trip and finds himself in an eerily quiet, unresponsive ship. Slowly, As he treads the corridors and rooms he discovers two body bags containing members of the scientific crew. Then, he finds Snow (Jeremy Davis), a mental case of a scientist who, shaping his erratic speech with arm and hand gestures, discloses the fate of the dead men. There is, however, another survivor, Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) who has locked herself in her room.

So far, Kelvin sees reason for a trained psychologist to be there, but Snow avoids telling him the real reason, which he will discover only too soon. Overcome by fatigue and at Snow's suggestion, he sleeps, only to be awakened by a pair of lovely hands caressing him. When he turns to see who it is he jumps from the bed as though from a living nightmare, which is about to begin. On the bed is his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). His dead wife. Or, rather, the illusion of her. But, is it an illusion? She's warm and human in every cognitive way except, perhaps, that she doesn't have full recall of her life. But her love for Kelvin is total and appears to us as real.

Kelvin can't accept it and dupes her into a space pos to hustle her off the space ship, attempting to escape a concept for which he has no coping mechanism. But that solution is soon gone when Rheya reappears but, by now, he's learned that it's something to do with the planet, which is increasing in size exponentially as humans die. As it grows, it conjures beings out of live human dreams and memories to accompany the dreamer. It's something like a second chance, only with sinister dimensions.

Kelvin now throws understanding aside and embraces the idea of having his wife back in his life. It may be an illusion but it's so complete and lifelike, with all the emotions and manifestations of the real person that the psychologist is now fighting against Gordon's intention to return to earth without their "visitor", which each of those aboard have.

In a previous attempt to bring this material to a movie audience, the overly profound Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, used it for an attempted exploration of its existential meanings through a great deal of heavy symbolism. Soderbergh's version, at a trim 99 minutes, is more than an hour shorter than Tarkovsky's and, in focusing on one man swamped by the very source of his emotional sensitivity, delivers an intense experience of love's bind on the conscious mind and will.

Fully up to the task of bringing us up with him on this journey is George Clooney whose natural magnetism underlies a convincing complex of fear and loss, of the intoxication of impossible circumstances. And, how effectively matched for this unworldly restoration is Natascha McElhone ("Feardotcom") whose beauty and character explains the power of desperation amidst such mysteries.

An un-Hollywood choice for scientist Gordon, Viola Davis takes this role that was written expressly for her and runs with it, exhibiting an audacious energy and singularity of mind that makes it very much her own. Soderbergh has recognized her potential in lesser parts (social worker in "Traffic") and here fully exploits it to add clashing conclusions to an ensemble mix that is so limited in number that the contribution of each member is high in relevance to the whole.

It is also a testament to Lem's novel and Soderbergh's translation to the screen that the story is so complete with so few characters.

Beyond character development is the production's visualization of space, in particular the seething, gaseous molecular matrix of Solaris, lurking beyond the ship's windows, growing, threatening, enveloping.

We are thankful that Soderbergh convinced James Cameron ("Titanic") who owned the rights to this property and intended to direct it, to allow him to take it on. By Cameron's own admission his version of it would have been bigger and grander.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
Rating: 10
I agree with the review

awesome film - ive seen it 5 times since it came out. very underrated film that deserves a wider audience

                            ~~ Aj



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George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, confronting surreality

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